The bye week seemed to do wonders for the Ravens' psyche. Despite sharing the second-worst record in the AFC, players returned to the team facility feeling pretty good about the team's outlook for the second half.
One-by-one, they stood near their lockers Monday and expressed confidence that the Ravens will string some wins together. They not only talked about reaching the playoffs as if it was an obtainable goal, they spoke like it was the expected outcome.
Forget the fact that no 2-6 team under the current playoff format has ever qualified for the postseason.
"That's why it's going to feel so much greater when we finally make it, coming back from this record and the first eight games of this season," said cornerback Jimmy Smith. "Let's make some history."
Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said that he has "zero doubt" that the Ravens can make it to the postseason. Running back Justin Forsett said that everybody in the locker room believes that to be the case. Even coach John Harbaugh, who traditionally stays in the moment, made no effort to minimize such talk.
"Of course we can. We're planning on it," Harbaugh said when asked if the Ravens can make the playoffs. "I'm very optimistic about what's in front of us, our future. I love our players, love the way they work, love the enthusiasm that they had today coming back and getting ready for Jacksonville."
As they began preparations for Sunday's game against the Jaguars (2-6) at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens know that they've left themselves little to no margin of error in their second half.
An 8-0 finish, which Justin Tucker laid out as the team's goal following his game-winning kick against the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 1, would almost certainly get them in the postseason for the seventh time in Harbaugh's eight seasons. Winning seven of their final eight and finishing 9-7 might even get it done, given that only five AFC teams have a winning record and the two current wild-card leaders — the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers — are 5-3 and 5-4 respectively.
But are these Ravens even capable of such a strong finish?
Their offense has struggled with consistency for much of the season and now has to move forward without its most productive player: wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who had surgery Monday to repair a torn right Achilles tendon. The defense is giving up just under 27 points per game on average and ranks 24th overall in the NFL and 29th against the pass.
The Ravens had a chance to get healthier during the bye week and do some self scouting, both of which should help. But they are going to have to play a whole lot better than they have to be relevant in late-November and December.
"We've got to earn our way to have that conversation for sure, but I expect our guys to have high expectations," said Harbaugh whose team will need to go no worse than 6-2 the rest of the way for him to avoid his first losing season. "The standard here has been high. We've set a high bar here for a long time and we're proud of that. We have high expectations, so we're not going to let those expectations go. We're not pleased with where we're at, just like the fans aren't pleased, the coaches aren't pleased, the players aren't pleased. Nobody in the organization is pleased with where we're at, but we're very determined to turn it around."
That started with a spirited — yet light — practice session Monday. Several Ravens spoke excitedly about being back on the field with their teammates and getting a chance to change the narrative of their season.
"This group, we're playing the hand we're dealt," said safety Kendrick Lewis. "By no form or fashion did we think we would be sitting here at 2-6 at this point in the season, but as far as the morale of the team, we handled it well. Guys still come to work with a smile on their face eager to get better, eager to learn. That's what I see with this ballclub."
The Ravens do have a couple of things working in their favor. They will play five of the next eight weeks at M&T Bank Stadium, where they've held one of the league's best home-field advantages under Harbaugh. Two of their three road games in the second half are in Miami and Cleveland, venues where they've had success in recent seasons.
Of their final eight games, only two of them — against the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals — are against teams that currently have winning records and those contests are in the final two weeks of the regular season.
"It's definitely not impossible, not for Ravens football teams," Jimmy Smith said. "We're a cold-weather team, and the weather's getting cold. We're at home for a big portion of this stretch, so it's something that can happen. … A lot of the games this year have been winnable. We've just got to go out and win them. That's what it comes down to."
Smith also said that the team has adopted a "playoffs-or-bust" mindset, treating every game the rest of the way like it's a postseason contest.
Forsett, meanwhile, was taking a more near-sighted approach. In a four-minute interview, he mentioned five different times that the Ravens' goal was just to go 1-0 by beating the Jaguars.
"We just have to focus on Jacksonville," he said. "If you start worrying about the other stuff, you're going to lose focus on what's at hand and we've got to deal with what's in front of us right now, and that's Jacksonville.
"We've got to go 1-0 this week. It's a big game for us. Every game is going to be a playoff-type game for us the second half of the year. We just got to go out, do what we can do and control what we can control."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.